Byron had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull…
From Lapham’s Quarterly:
Francis Gastrell was very annoyed. He had bought a nice new house only to find hordes of uninvited guests tramping through his garden and helping themselves to sprigs and branches from his mulberry tree. These trespasses angered him so much that one day he took up an axe and chopped the tree down, thus removing the inconvenience. The visitors stopped coming, which in turn upset the villagers who relied on their money. They formed a gang, descended on Gastrell’s house, and smashed all his windows. With the score evened, things quieted down for a bit, at least until the town council decided to raise the taxes on the property, thus driving Gastrell into a renewed frenzy. Rather than pay the increased dues, the reverend (for Gastrell was a man of the cloth), chose to vacate the house and dismantle the entire building brick by brick and gable by gable. A fresh stump and a razed plot were all that remained to inform visitors that here had stood New Place, the handsome and spacious manor house that William Shakespeare had bought for his retirement, and where, with his very own hands, he had once planted a mulberry tree.
Gastrell’s spectacularly vindictive act of vandalism took place in 1759, depriving the world of one of the only remaining sites with unambiguous ties to Shakespeare. But it served to mark the advent of literary tourism. Infused with the nascent spirit of romanticism, late-eighteenth-century lovers of literature who desired greater intimacy with their favorite works set off to commune with the spirit of genius as it lingered in place. Writers became objects of fascination, celebrities noted not for their craft or erudition but for their vivid individuality and the expansive range of their passions. For living legends like Voltaire and Rousseau, daily life involved a procession of curious sightseers who came not to speak with them as equals, but to nudge each other and point as if gazing at monuments, which made Rousseau so uneasy he built a trapdoor in his study to escape them. Souvenirs were an essential part of the experience, a sliver of the mundane snatched to unite oneself to the vast infinity of the sublime. Though fairly innocuous in the case of literary gardens, they could also be decidedly ghoulish. The body of the novelist Laurence Sterne was dug up shortly after his death by resurrectionists at the behest of surgeons who prized the opportunity to examine the great wit’s organs. The body was recognized on the slab by horrified students also acquainted with literature. When the body of John Milton was exhumed in 1790 in order to locate the exact site of his grave, it was immediately ransacked for hair, teeth, and ribs and put on display for anyone willing to pay sixpence. The dismantled Milton was eventually put back together, but only after a scandalized antiquarian bought back the remains at an inflated price. The heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley was famously plucked from the flames of his funeral pyre on a beach near Viareggio and squabbled over by Leigh Hunt and Edward Trelawny, the former wishing to preserve it in a jar of wine, and the latter wanting to present it to Shelley’s widow, Mary, who eventually kept it in a drawer of her writing table. Lord Byron had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull, but Trelawny, “remembering he had previously used one as a drinking cup,” only preserved a fragment of it, which is now in the possession of the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library. It looks exactly like a piece of dried leaf.
Byron had a penchant for keepsakes and mementos, often traveling with a specially made screen that had pictures of his favorite actors on one side and his favorite boxers on the other—ironic given that he felt so devoured by the ravening and persistent intrusions into his private life that he eventually sent himself into exile. “Byromania” (a term coined by his future wife, Annabella Milbanke) swept England after the publication in 1812 of his poetic travelogue Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which went on to sell a remarkable twenty thousand copies. It was followed by a series of “Oriental tales” that were also successful—The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos (both 1813), Lara and The Corsair (both 1814), The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (both 1816)—all eminently accessible poems, built around bold, questing narratives and propelled by jogging rhythms that depicted men of “loneliness and mystery” tormented by forbidden knowledge and a threatening secret.
The unprecedented reaction to Byron’s poetry coincided with the demands of intimacy that romantic readers were making upon authors they admired.